I recently finished reading "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" by Christopher Hitchens. Although I obtained my copy from the public library, it is widely available in bookstores and recently came out in paperback. I've always enjoyed reading Hitchens' works and listening to him on radio and television. He is a throwback in some ways, a crumudgeonly anti-establishment ex-Trotskyite Englishman (now American citizen) who speaks for the oppressed and downtrodden regardless of who is doing the oppressing at the time. I've always liked him because he skewers both the Left and Right with equal abandon.
In "God Is Not Great" Hitchens takes the matter of religion head-on arguing that it is a sham created by man to oppress and control the masses. He bases his argument on an equal examination of Islam, Christianity and Judaism with some other cults thrown in for good measure. He methodically examines the basis of the writings of these religions, their interpretation and the countless lives lost due to them. Hitchens' goes as far as to argue that introducing children to religion at a young age is tantamount to child abuse. Although it seems light on evidence and rushed at times, I liked the book and would recommend it to both believers and non-believers alike.
I was raised as a Presbyterian in a generally religion free family. Church was a once or twice a year trip based around holidays and beyond a period of study for the confirmation process, I can say that my upbringing was generally devoid of any great spiritual message. That being said, I was encouraged to do a great deal of reading on the subject, on the history of the church and the scriptures themselves. I always enjoyed discussing the subject with my father as we asked each other questions on subjects such as the formation of the universe, who created God, the apocalypse and the meaning of life. Despite the fact that I never attended church regularly, I found that I was better acquainted with the bible, and the history behind it, than many others that went every Sunday.
My belief in the Theravada school of Buddhism was a slow and gradual process based upon study and reflection upon the Christian beliefs with which I was raised. Old gnawing doubts about Christianity arose and were reinforced by the actions of others that I considered to be devout Christians. If Hell really exists, for example, how could a devout Christian who attended church every week and ate dinner with her priest a couple of times per month steal money from my company ? If Hell was real, and some absolute punishment awaited her in the afterlife, how could she reconcile that with her actions which violated a Commandment and destroyed my life ?
A more recent reinforcement of this line of reasoning was confirmed by the governmental report on the horrifying, and long-term, abuse of children at the hands of religious orders in Ireland. If God is real, and he is all-seeing and all-knowing, and eternal hell awaits those that commit such terrible crimes, how could these people (especially as priests who are supposed to really believe this stuff) commit thousands of acts of child abuse including rape ? How could a religious institution not only cover up their crimes but transfer them to new areas so they could begin their perversions anew ? Incidentally, if you have the time, and the stomach, you can read the report for yourself here.
I was attracted to Buddhism because of its lack of proselytizing and the Buddha's message that everything he said should be challenged and debated- quite different from the absolute authoritarian positions of the three great monotheistic faiths. Buddhism, at least in the original conservative Theravada school, can also be better described as a philosophy rather than a religion. The Buddha rejected all talk that he was a deity or possessed any supernatural powers- he was simply a man with a new way to ponder the mysteries of the mind and to bring a new system of ethics for us to examine. He really didn't care if we debated these ideas, embraced them or rejected them. Indeed, I am still not completely sold on the Buddhist philosophy and have major disagreements with the concept of reincarnation which cannot be proven empirically. I am free to examine this issue further, however, without the judgment of a Priest, Rabbi or Imman.
As someone who has sought shelter in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, I am always open to discuss my beliefs with friends and family. I am amused, but not surprised, by the reaction of others when I tell them that I am a Buddhist (especially by fundamentalist Christians.) Far from taking a step back and examining their beliefs from all sides, I have found fundamentalists deaf to any discussion of their faith and validity of mine. The lack of knowledge regarding Buddhism, and many other beliefs, is a testament to the public educational system of our country. I sometimes think that if I was a Satanist, my Christian friends would at least know what I'm talking about.
As a heathen Buddhist, I have found out that I am damned to hell, but those who are born again are on the fast-track to paradise. While they attack Buddhism as one hand, they refuse to examine the evidence regarding who wrote the old and new testaments, the contradictions in some of the stories and the process by which the so-called word of God was handed down through history. Otherwise intelligent people would would closely analyze the difference in cell phone plans seem completely willing to believe the Christian story hook, line and sinker.
Faith is a personal issue which I respect to a point. As long as it stays out of the public and political arena, I believe that we all can believe to worship, or not-worship, in our own way. The frightening thing to me, and one of the factors that drove me away from both Christianity and the Republican Party, was the rise of the Christian Right and its battle for dominance of the Republican message. There is a very thin line between a supposed republic and a theocracy and I fear that we are taking the first tentative step across it.
The other problem that I have with some aspects of religion, like Hitchens, is how it is impressed upon our children through a process of indoctrination. Rather than allowing children to grow up with a wide education in varying faiths and philosophies, they are taught a very narrow view of the world and shown that anyone outside of these views is wrong and worth of contempt. At best, this creates arrogance and feelings of supremacy. At worst, it convinces children to strap their chests with explosives.
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